by PuckStopsHere on 09/27/09 at 04:35 PM ET
Here is my predicted order of finish in the Central Division:
1. Detroit Red Wings They have turned over their roster once and remained on top. This year is a significant step in turning it over again. I think they will remain on top of the division, at least for now. They could have significant problems in goal. Last year, Chris Osgood had the worst saves percentage of any starter in the league (though he partially redeemed himself in the playoffs). He turns 37 this year and is likely well into the decline phase of his career. Unproven Jimmy Howard is the likely backup. Their defence is strong. Last year, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall were the best threesome on any defence in the league. Likely they can repeat at that level despite the fact Lidstrom is 39 and is no longer the best defenceman in hockey. Their forward unit is strong. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen are a very good top three, but they will not have the same depth this year as three of their top scoring forwards from last year (Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson) are no longer with the team. Dan Cleary, Valtteri Filppula and Tomas Holmstrom will nevertheless provide above average depth. The Red Wings will not be as good as they were last year, but they should remain near the top of the NHL standings.
2. Chicago Blackhawks The Blackhawks are trying to make a run at Detroit to win the Central Division, but they should fall short. Cristobal Huet will be a solid goalie (doing better than many expect) but he is no world-beater. He will have an unproven backup in Antti Niemi or Corey Crawford, so there could be serious problems if he falters. On defence, Chicago has a talented top three in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell. It is not quite at Detroit’s level, but among the best in the league. At forward, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are expected to make another big step forward offensively, but it should be noted that neither have had point per game seasons yet in their career. Marian Hossa is an important addition, but a shoulder injury will keep him out for the beginning of the season. Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Patrick Sharp provide the Hawks with some depth. This team should push the Wings for the division lead, but they are not strong enough to win it.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets The key to the Blue Jacket’s season is likely Steve Mason. Last year, he burst into the league winning the Calder Trophy and getting a Vezina Trophy nomination. That was a big reason for Columbus making the playoffs for their first time ever. However, he slowed down in the stretch. Hopefully, that is due to fatigue and a bout with mononucleosis and not a repeatable phenomenon. If Mason has a more average season, the Jackets could struggle. Rick Nash is the leader of the Columbus forward unit and the only player who can be relied upon to score on the rate of a point per game. Depth is provided by Kristian Huselius, RJ Umberger, Jakub Voracek, newcomer Sami Pahlsson and likely Nikita Filatov. Their defence is solid due to implementation of Ken Hitchcock’s strong defensive systems, but it lacks any big names. Fedor Tyutin, Jan Hejda and Mike Commodore will be playing significant minutes for the Blue Jackets.
4. Nashville Predators Nashville has a very strong young defence core built around Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Dan Hamhuis. In goal, they will rely on rookie Pekka Rinne to repeat his solid rookie year or Dan Ellis to repeat his solid year of the year before. Neither have a proven track record. Many of the top forwards on the team including Jason Arnott, JP Dumont and Steve Sullivan are into their 30"s and may be in decline, David Legwand is 29. It is hard to identify a young forward who is ready to make a big step forward. This team barely missed playoffs last year with a solid performance in goal from Rinne. They stood pat and have an aging forward unit. Should their goaltending be unable to repeat its performance, the Predators could drop, but I think they will come close to last year’s record and miss playoffs, but be in the race most of the season.
5. St Louis Blues The Blues took a huge leap forward in the second half last year. The team looked very weak early in the season and was nearly left for dead, but recovered with a strong stretch run and made the playoffs. It was a big step forward, but one that is likely unsustainable. Teams that take big steps forward usually do so because a lot of things went right at the same time and that kind of luck rarely repeats itself - leading to a regression the next season. They should be OK in goal this year as Chris Mason and Ty Conklin are a solid pair of underrated goalies, though they may be beginning to age. Last year on defence, Carlo Colaiacovo led the team with 29 points. That isn’t very good. Barret Jackman, Eric Johnson and Eric Brewer could carry the load somewhat, but all have histories of injuries. At forward, TJ Oshie, Patrick Berglund, David Backes and David Perron are likely the future of the organization, but I expect some growing pains before they truly take over from the old guard of Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya. I think the Blues are heading in the right direction, but they made a false start last year and are not ready to repeat it. They will likely miss the playoffs this year.
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